Speech to the Women in Statistics conference - Victoria University

  • Pansy Wong
Women's Affairs

Tēnā koutou kātoa.  Good morning.

I would like to welcome you all here to this conference which is one of a number of celebrations taking place throughout New Zealand today to mark the United Nations World Statistics Day.

I want to acknowledge my colleague the Minister of Statistics Maurice Williamson who yesterday launched the New Zealand Official Yearbook to coincide with the first United Nations mandated World Statistics Day and to thank the Victoria University School of Government for hosting this event the aim of which is to promote and celebrate women's achievement in statistics.

Victoria University has a long tradition of encouraging women in statistics starting with Prof Jim Campbell, then Prof David Vere-Jones who were instrumental in the development of New Zealand's Mathematics with Statistics curriculum. Some of the women influenced by them are present here today.

It is exciting to be here to recognise a profession in which women excel and one which is essential because consistent, robust and accurate data collection helps Governments and other organisations measure areas where there is serious concern and can be the basis of policy making which can help change the lives of many people.

Hence it is comforting to know there are over 16,000 students studying Mathematics with Statistics in New Zealand schools this year. This is probably due to the fact that New Zealand leads the world by having the first statistics curriculum for school children at all levels, from new entrants through to the end of secondary schooling. This was part of the review of the school curriculum initiated in 1993 by the then National Government.

That it became a success in such a short space of time is the result of people working together - government departments, academics and teachers, and members of the New Zealand Statistical Association. The role of the late Jim Neyland as the principal writer of the statistics component of the curriculum framework needs to be acknowledged as does the willingness of the many teachers to embrace the challenge of teaching data handling, graphs and statistics in new and fun ways to students.

The college of education staff that train the teachers also need to be acknowledged. Of particular note in terms of encouraging women to take part in mathematics and statistics was Helen Wily of the Christchurch College of Education.

Back in 1990 in Otago University at the third International Conference on Teaching Statistics, the first session on gender issues in statistics education was run by Helen Wily and Sharleen Forbes. Women in Statistics have never looked back since then.

There is evidence that girls prefer statistics to other forms of mathematics. In July this year just under 40% of the Mathematics with Calculus students were female while almost 50% of the Mathematics with Statistics students were.

It appears that women are attracted by the real-world nature of statistics. Here at Victoria University about a third of students majoring in statistics are women but over half of those in applied statistics are women.

In 2008, of domestic students at New Zealand universities graduating in the mathematical sciences 56% of those with level 3 or 4 certificates or diplomas were women, 49% of bachelors degrees were women, 44% of graduate diplomas and honours were women and 50% of Masters and higher degrees were women.

Today, women are succeeding in all spheres of statistics: We have women at professorial level in university statistics departments
- Professor Marti Anderson at Massey University at Albany who sends her apologies
- Professor Natalie Jackson at  Waikato University's Centre for Population Studies, and here at Victoria University just announced last Monday Shirley Pledger, Professor of Biometrics. Congratulations to Shirley.

We have women as Heads of university statistics departments:

  • Associate Professor Paparangi Reid, Head of Department of Maori Health, Auckland University
  • Associate Professor Megan Clark, Head of Mathematics , Statistics and Operations Research here at Victoria University
  • Associate Professor Jenny Brown, Head of Mathematics and Statistics at Canterbury University.
  • Of the seven Deputy Government Statisticians within our national statistics office, Statistics New Zealand, three are women.

And, within the professional association for statisticians, the New Zealand Statistical Association, there have already been 3 women Presidents. A third of current New Zealand members and half of student members are female which is another indicator of change.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Today we will hear from six women who have been successful in their careers as statisticians, many of them doing this while also raising families.

Following in the footsteps of these women is a large number of up-and-coming female statisticians demonstrating that statistics is a career in which women can excel.

This is encouraging for me as Minister of Women's Affairs because the Ministry and I made getting more women directors on to publicly listed companies' boards a priority.

Statistics can show us why gender diversity in boardrooms is not just the right thing to do but the bright thing to do. A new study by Australia's Reiby Institute "ASX500 Women Leaders" has identified a positive correlation between the presence of women on boards and company performance.

The two main findings were that ASX500 companies with women as directors delivered a higher average rate of return than those without women by 10.7 per cent higher over three years and 11.1 per cent higher over five years.

It also showed that in eight out of ten sectors, companies with women directors demonstrated a higher return on equity than those without women directors.

This study is significant because it mirrors earlier international reports but is based on up-to-date data from Australian companies.

Another statistic the Ministry of Women's Affairs and I pay a lot of attention to is the Gender Pay Gap.

The recently released annual 2010 New Zealand Income Survey figures showed the Gender Pay Gap in New Zealand has reduced from 11.3 percent in 2009 to 10.6 percent this year. Prior to this, from around 2001 the gap had stalled at around 12 per cent.

These figures were based on the median hourly earnings of men and women, the figures used since 2004 by the Ministry of Women's Affairs to track the trend in the gender Pay Gap.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs uses the median hourly rate because it is not influenced by the value of benefits received, and is less influenced by the number of hours worked than weekly incomes.

Last week the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report 2010 was released. It provides a gender gap index comparing 134 countries by capturing gender-based disparities across four categories and 14 indicators. The categories are economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival criteria; and political empowerment.

New Zealand, as expected, did well and retained its overall fifth ranked place since 2007. However, among the 14 indicators, two income-related indicators had declined slightly. Wage Equality for Similar Work fell by 0.02 and Estimated Earned Income by 0.03.

One can imagine why critics leapt to the conclusion that that there is a widening of the income gap between men and women in 2010.

A proper analysis of the data suggested a more complicated picture. One of the two indicators, the Wage Equality for Similar Work data was based on the World Economic forum's Executive opinion Survey 2010. This is part of an opinion survey which asks respondents for their opinion on the extent wages for men and women are equal for similar work. Therefore, the level of optimism or pessimism of respondents will have a direct influence on the index score.

The other indicator, Estimated Earned Income data was arrived at by calculating men's and women's share of the wage bill as a proportion of the total Gross Domestic Product. As the authors of the report note, this is a crude estimate of earned income.

This is an international report which invariably relies on data that is not up to date and in this instance is based on the United Nations Development Program, Human development report 2009 but the total income used in that report is 2007. Hence, it cannot be interpreted as a current trend. That's why the Ministry of Women's Affairs adopted the policy of using statistical data on a consistent and robust basis to ensure an accurate trend data is tracked.

But, no matter what interpretation is used, there is a pay gap which we are keen to reduce to ensure women participating in economy will be rewarded fairly.

Another statistic we want to see reduce is violence against women. The New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey 2006 showed that 30 percent of New Zealand women suffered from partner violence.

Reported family violence rates have increased though the increase may reflect a lower tolerance of such violence and a greater willingness to report it.

Another focus for this Government is reducing sexual violence against women with 29 per cent of women experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime.

Because of this statistic s the Government has put in place 71 recommendations across four areas to combat this violence.

The four areas are prevention, front line services, criminal justice and future directions and approaches. One of the most important recommendations is to ensure victims have the support they need.

Reliable, consistent and accurate statistics are as essential for us to identify problems as they are to formulate solutions and then track the impact of effective interventions or otherwise.

The importance of statistics has been recognised for decades and it was way back in 1947, 63 years ago, when the United Nations Statistical Commission was established.

It brings together the Chief Statisticians from member states from around the world. It is the highest decision making body for international statistical activities especially the setting of statistical standards, the development of concepts and methods and their implementation at the national and international level.

The Commission oversees the United Nations Statistics Division and is a functional member of the UN Economic and Social Council. It is from there a lot of the world's development and aid programs are decided.

Statistics are also important to encourage debate, to form the basis of decision making and to measure progress.

It is about collecting, exploring, summarising and reaching sensible conclusions

As a politician, I certainly appreciate the importance of understanding the underlying assumptions of statistics in order to make sound judgements.

They are important in helping us to create a better and fairer world and I am very pleased to see so many women taking part in this exciting profession.

I now have much pleasure in announcing this conference open and wishing you all a pleasant and interesting day.